Your work transcends eras and demographics, so it’s fitting that you’re involved in the remake of an 80s classic near and dear to my heart. When I was six years-old, Devo was my favourite band. I loved to pogo along to “Freedom of Choice”, and today, as an adult, I love clever lyrics like, “Freedom of choice is what you’ve got / Freedom from choice is what you want.” You and your hazmat-suited, energy-domed bandmates wrote anti-establishment diatribes disguised as catchy, new-wave pop.
You’ve worked on everything from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse to 21 Jump Street to just about every Wes Anderson film, and now the Vacation reboot. There is even talk that you and Wes Anderson are going to open up a theme park of your own in your hometown of Akron, Ohio. Considering that the idea that spurned the creation of Devo was De-evolution - the regression of mankind and the subversion of the American way of life – I’m guessing your target demographic won’t be families like the Griswolds.
Like its 1983 predecessor, Vacation is an R-rated comedy. As a kid, I knew those “mature audiences only” warnings were tongue-in cheek. There is very little about the Vacation movies that could be considered mature, and that’s what made them so much fun. When I was 10, I related to the Griswold kids, Rusty and Audrey, who had to endure the hell of road-tripping with their lame parents. As adults, my husband and I ritually watch Vacation before we go on holiday. It’s a silly reminder that no matter how bad our trip might turn out, it won’t be Griswold-bad. I was worried that this new iteration might sour the franchise again (ahem, Vegas Vacation), but it manages to hit the same absurd, juvenile, and hilariously uncomfortable marks as the original. And, like the 1983 version, this Vacation is better enjoyed as the sum of its parts rather than as a whole.
Rusty Griswold is now a husband and father who longs to bond with his kids and to reignite the passion in his marriage. But because he is a Griswold, his idea of a quick fix is to take the family on a road trip to Wally World. The film opens with Lindsay Buckingham’s “Holiday Road” and the titles roll over a montage of awkward family vacation photos, reassuring us that the elements we loved about the original film will be updated accordingly. “Holiday Road” is covered a few times (once as a dirge), but many of the songs you include are integral to the plot (“Kiss From A Rose” and “Summer Breeze”) while others are pitch perfect additions (“Crown on the Ground” and ”Still Not A Player”).
There are many elements that harken back to the original film. Popular comedians in bit parts, a dysfunctional vehicle, uncomfortable family reunions, and it all meshes well with this vision of the 21st-Century Griswolds. The kids – overly-sensitive teen James and his sociopathic little brother Kevin – have more to chew on than their counterparts. The parents, played by Ed Helms and Christina Applegate, naturally channel that lovably moronic Griswold sensibility. Applegate is given far more to do than Beverly D’Angelo ever was, and she steals almost every scene she’s in. As much as I love the long-suffering Ellen, Applegate’s “Do-Anything” Debbie is a refreshingly feminist, take-no-BS matriarch.
Watching last year’s Oscar telecast, I got super excited about seeing you onstage during the musical number for “Everything Is Awesome” (which you produced). The exact opposite of that Oscar-night excitement is what I felt near the end of Vacation’s second act, when Chevy Chase shows up, reprising his role as the bumbling Clark Griswold. His tired shtick evokes little more than pity-laughs from those of us old enough to remember when he was still funny. It’s easy to see why, during their blessedly brief cameo, D’Angelo looks like the proverbial deer in headlights. I guess three-plus decades of dealing with Chase’s shrinking talent and massive ego will do that to a person. I hope that this dutiful nod to the pater familias means that we won’t have to endure more awkward visits with Grandpa Clark should the franchise continue. Like Devo’s unnecessary 1984 cover of “R U Experienced?”, some things are better left in the past.
Nostalgia trips are fun up to a point, but they can quickly veer into self-indulgence. Vacation takes what we loved most about the original and drives it into this century. But it flails when it tries to preach about spending time with family and working hard to maintain your marriage. Sure, those things are important, but that’s not why we watch a Vacation movie.
The Griswolds just want to live the suburban dream of a picture-perfect family, secure job, and well-deserved annual holiday but they are thwarted at every turn. It seems they’ve embraced your theory of De-volution, but because they are Griswolds, they have done so completely by accident.